Friday, 7 February 2014

Is the Past Really a Foreign Country ?

This essay was first written in the mid 1980s for a conference in Hobart, Tasmania run by Cassandra Pybus, historian and Sydney friend. It sought to stitch together some ideas I had felt emerging at the edges of some of the lectures I had been giving at Sydney University and were focused by Lowenthal’s recent book. Some thirty years later, when I have actually written up the Robin Hood materials I was then thinking about and seen a good deal more develop in medievalism and a good deal more wither on the campuses, the main positions seem equally sound, merely in need of some updating.


`The past is a foreign country’. It’s such a persuasive statement; it’s a convincing metaphor, replete with bogus authority. The idea embodied in the statement immediately suggests the attractive things about a foreign country – a place that is exotic, instructive, capable of being visited for a short period, and place from which we can comfortably return home. Of course, as with all foreign countries there might be some things we might not like, some things which are even be nauseating, food, behaviour, sanitation … And there might be some of those foreign countries of the past, or parts of them, that we might not want to visit again. But if we accept this metaphor of the past as another place in time, then tourism, distance, selection, and above all control, they are all possible. If the past is a foreign country, then its threats and its pleasures are equally containable.

However, the two authors who have most memorably used this statement and put it into the language both present and recently past have had somewhat odd relations with it. First, they have given it great authority. L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between of 1953, which made a memorable film in 1970, opens with these words. And a heavyweight, much-publicised, much-cited, book by David Lowenthal took the statement as its title.

But both those books explored the statement. Hartley went carefully into the notional foreignness of the past of his narrator, a man recalling in old age the exciting and dismaying events of one year in his youth: his past turns out to be distressingly familiar, not foreign at all. And Lowenthal in his non-fictional mode thoroughly investigated ways in which the past, especially the past of art and architecture is both distinct from the present and yet is in some ways continuous with modern consciousness.

Both books essentially interrogate the apparent simplicity of their thematic statements. They ask `Is the past a foreign country ?’ In response to their question, both books stress aspects of continuity between past and present. Hartley sees the love affair in which the narrator was a go-between as a determining experience in his life; Lowenthal sees the past as a constant repertoire for self-expression in the present.

In my work as a lecturer and writer I often refer to the past, including  the quite distant past. Not much before the fifth century CE, but a lot of it in the Middle Ages, between 1100 and 1500. I also tend in my courses to focus on extended  temporal and thematic sequences. I teach and write about the long-functioning myth of King Arthur, or the somewhat less extended tradition of Robin Hood, the varying versions of the stories of Tristan and Isolde or the less well known but strikingly varied treatments of Troilus and Cressida.

So you might well think I would be pleased by a position which tends to merge the past into the present. And that I would be happy with the development in the last ten or so years of what is called `medievalism’, a subject area concerned with identifying just how medieval themes and motifs have been redeployed in modern literature and culture from the nineteenth century onwards. Many ambitious young academics, finding their classes in Old English and Chaucer fading away, especially in North America, have turned to this interestingly renovated version of their technical mystery, plucking new relevance from the apparently withering tree of medieval studies.


However, I have to report I am not so easily pleased by this now apparently automatic position which tends to merge the past into the present, which validates tourist visits to the past in terms of the interesting and career valuable nature of that foreignness reapplied at home in modernity. There seem to me to be some serious problems with the graceful collapsing of past into the present, the collapsing that you find, even with some doubt, in both Hartley and Lowenthal.

Apart from self-confident careerist medievalism, there is another area of recent intellectual activity which casts interesting light on this issue. While tourism studies have in many ways been related to hotels and transport, there is a theory-oriented end of this new discipline, one not in favour with governments and those who make, or claim to make, decisions in modern universities. As you might expect the theoreticians do not fit too well with the hands on skills training people who  fit people for jobs in hotels and travel agencies. But the theorists have things to tell us.

The relevant analyst is  Dean McCannell. He sums up his position:

… every nicely motivated effort to preserve nature, primitives and the past, and to represent them authentically, contributes to an opposite tendency – the present is made more unified against its past, more in control of nature, less a product of history.

In the context of this sort of analysis – and John Frow has a very interesting essay on the field -- the notion that the past is a foreign country, capable of visiting or ignoring as you choose,  seems all too easy, in some serious ways  contemptuous of the structural dignity and separate identity of the past, and also more than a little elusive of ways in which we can learn from the manner in which the past might indeed seem foreign to us. I will give examples of what I mean as I go along, but first must insist on the centrally misleading element of the `foreign country’ metaphor, its topographicality. It suggests directly, purposefully, that we can visit the past and then come home, put away the tickets, dust off the dust of abroad and be as we were except for some optional memories.

This is not so, especially not so if it is our own cultural past we visit and, as the tourist theory people note, reconstruct ourself in that location. Tasmanians may well know what I mean better than most. What we find going back is in some ways ourselves and our own systems of construction, and that can be a disturbing, even repellent experience. We may be time-travellers or dream researchers, but we are not casual tourists. The shock of the past, whether it is the ancient jails, or the treatment of pre-existing island life, both aboriginal people and animals, or -- looking further abroad – nineteenth-century English factory conditions, the life of medieval serfs, the processes of enclosure in Britain, chronological travels cannot be elided or eluded. We people of the present are being constructed there in the past as well.

If the metaphor of accepting the past as a country at all is misleading, believing that it might be absolutely foreign also has a malign effect. Those who fervently accept the past as being quite foreign can react in opposite directions. They can resolutely refuse to be interested in this foreign past, they can insist on living in some starkly isolated and therefore judgement-free present (the skills-training university comes to mind). They can be incapable of accepting any of the light and shade of historically informed comprehension.

This anecdote actually all happened. At the staff student seminar at Sydney University a student asked me one day `Why are we doing all this old stuff ?’ `Ah well,’ I said a little nervously, `what stuff did you have in mind ?`  -- thinking `Oh Christ what have I been going on about now. Was it the round forts in Pictish culture, or what happened to King Arthur’s sons, or was William Langland really a Benedictine monk ?’ He thought for a while, his brow creasing in a quite unwonted fashion. Then his thick lips slowly formed the words `Eliot, you know, Eliot.’ `Ah’, I replied with knowing relief, thinking, not me then, `Ah, George Eliot, the nineteenth century provincial novel, there are connections you know with Australian life.’ `No,’ he persevered, really into this thinking stuff now, `No, the other guy,’ and with a great effort, `T. Eliot.’ Ahead of this student shimmered the shining shores of law, no doubt, or perhaps commerce, or perhaps just jail. T. S. Eliot’s anguished attempt to reconstruct a culturally .and morally valid terrain for art after the first world war and the exhaustion of Victorian certainties – that had no commercial value.

Such people have flourished: there are forces hovering around, and even inside, the Australian Research Council at this moment which are at political behest, apparently from both sides of politics, attempting to discontinue research funding from subjects without specific socioeconomic value – like in the humanities; subjects that generate criticism of the present. But that position, and that of my Eliotophobe student, is actual a dialectical reflex of another belief in the foreignness of the country of the past: the person who so much values it that he/she never comes home.

There are academic medievalists (again, especially in North America) who sit on replicas of Cistercian stools, their windows almost blocked with plastic replicas of stained glass panels; they are clothed carefully in hand-woven and naturally-dyed costumes of doubtful fit and puzzling gender orientation. They are your true specialists, they know more about the full stop in late Mercian than you ever could or indeed more than the Mercians themselves would ever want to know or believe possible of cognition. These people do really live in the past; they are happy in the past, though it is true they go off on their study-leave to more past in a plane, not walk great distances or be jostled all day in a cart in the way their emotive contemporaries in the middle ages had to do. Such people’s information can at times be of  value, it is true, though they will not know when or why. Their work is a type of know-everything and know-nothing connoisseurism, just as materialised and inhuman in its ways as the worst anti-humanities acts of modern managerial and political vandalism, not to mention hunism and gothism.


If the past can’t be visited and then left, not being a country, and if it shouldn’t be ignored totally, because it is part of our own making, not being foreign, if it shouldn’t be a hermitage from which never to emerge, what then should it be ? Well, nothing clouded by a simplistic metaphor for a start – it’s the past, our past and everyone else’s, and time is  a domain of its own not to be elided into other metaphorics. And perhaps the best way of moving towards a construction of what the past really is and how it really should be regarded is to bring in some evidence of things that come up from the past, that bear the mark of its own character and dignity, and that if pursued conceptually, even if from some distance, can be vigorously educative about our own construction and position.

Let me be specific. It always helps, especially to clarify if what you are referring to is useful, valid, or a waste of time. When you read medieval texts like Chaucer, or romances, or Malory, the big books of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, there are not a great number of adjectives to be found. And of those that appear a lot are normative rather than descriptive, that is they are words like `fit’, `true’, `worthy’ – they imply the existence of a set of recognised, shared values. That is in itself very interesting and suggests an approach to value in collective consensus, different from our post-Romantic straining for evaluative individuality, but not all the adjectives are like that. There will be quit a lot of apparent specifics, especially colour adjectives: poets especially liked to have touches of colour appear in their texts. A robe richly red, particularly for a grand person; a dress of clear blue, especially if the wearer is treacherous; or a robe, or even a knight and his horse, of bright green to state something exceptional about nature acculturated. All the colours, that is, may have their own link to a field of normativity, like those other adjectives `fit’, `true’, `worthy’, not just to some scientistic spectrum-related identity. And the eyes of a beautiful woman will be grey. Always her eyes are grey.

Why are the eyes grey, you might wonder, as a modern person used to a near-rainbow of lovely eyes in our highly-coloured media. Are these medieval authors using the Mills and Boon rules for their heroines (though to be fair, in M and B it is usually the hero who has grey eyes either side of his haughty high-bridged nose). Or is there some genetic and class favouring going on here, like the fact that in medieval Welsh stories the lordly heroes are always auburn-haired – probably meaning they were imagined as Normans. No to those and any other ingenious answers that might be thought up. The trick is that grey does not mean grey, or not our sense of grey.

Medieval people, it appears, had two sets of colour terms. They saw colour in two ways. They had our terms for different hues: red, orange, yellow and so on, and many stops in between. But they also had a set of terms that could calibrate the intensity of light given off by a colour, What grey means in fact is `bright’, `shining’ and so `compelling’. But it can only go with a light hue. So the grey-eyed beauties are no doubt blue-eyed, with varying levels of blue hue, and they may well indeed be fair-haired as well and probably therefore, by implication, Normans not lustrously dark eyed Celtic, Gallic or Gaelic beauties – the Norse element in Norman is shining through just as with the red-headed lords swaggering around in Welsh romance. Genetics and class enter by a secret door.

The word in this light-assessing lexicon for high intensity and dark hue, the partner as it were to `grey’, was `brown’. Blood is often `brown, especially if it is fresh and sparkling. The words for low intensity are, dark hue - `dun’, still heard of a cow who has light-absorbing hair on its skin; and if the hue is light then the word is `fallow’, which we still use of a field that has been mowed and the drying stubble is lifeless and pale.

What does this tell us ? It’s not just a piece of trivial connoisseurship I trust. This is a genuinely foreign element of the past, and we can learn from it, We can visit it and bring it home with us, if the travel metaphor still dominates our minds. We can go a bit further and learn when and why we lost those terms (basically by the seventeenth century) – and as with dun and fallow they do hang around, and no doubt that is why we use the oddly meaningless-seeming phrase `as grey as glass’. We can also construct materialist theories about the colour-starved character of the medieval eye, so colour-starved its owners responded more strongly to stimuli in both  hue and brightness. But that idea can also be socially and culturally dynamised, when we realise how important in the medieval past were coloured clothes as a marker of status and of self-projections – certain colours for certain classes of people especially on days of major public activity, public self-validation. And it helps to explain the power, both physical and mystical, of elaborate coloration in churches, both in their glorious windows, lit powerfully by the sun at times, and in their altars, effigies, wall paintings –and indeed in clerical costumes, bibles and psalm books.

This rather odd fact about colour assessment in the past itself interrogates the present. Why are we so different is a question that will in this case define something about our construction, both ocular and cultural, both how we operate physically and how we make meaning out of physical cues. This might seem a small range, even a small point (though a brightly coloured one), but there are hosts of parallels of intensely and in some cases extremely meaningful contacts and connections between past and present. And that double phrase, contact and connection, indicates a crucial structure for the ways in which we should employ the past and its bearing on the present.


There is a Robert Weimann essay in which he talks about `past significance and present meaning’ in literary history. For him the  present and the past offer no more and no less than a set of negative and positive connections – and that pair overlaps with a differently-working pair, contrasts and continuities. It is in the past or even present of a culture very different from our own that most of the contrasts that will occur, and that in itself can be instructive. A friend of mine who went school-teaching in the Northern Territory found it very thought-provoking that her Aboriginal school-children, all friends and mostly related in some way, let one of their number do the homework as he was unusually gifted, and they all copied it out. He was their spokesman in the homework department, their clan minister for homework. Western, or quasi-western, ideas of self-development and competitive self-construction didn’t mean a lot to them. Nor, my friend decided, did they mean much to her, when she thought about it.

The past of our own culture, being more directly creative of us descendants, tends to have connections which can themselves be as puzzling as dramatic contrasts. For example, some decades ago I used to write for student newspapers and those marginal magazines that were breaking out like ideological measles all over Sydney in the early days of offset printing. One editor had been to a class where I had read out and talked about some lines of Chaucer that might well be today judged obscene, and he asked me to write a piece on obscenity in the middle ages. This was when local society was fighting hard against censorship, the years of Oz and Lady Chatterley, when Frank Moorhouse had to publish in Squire magazine because his stories included sex, those dear dead days of easily outraged innocence on both sides of the question.

I fiddled round with the topic for a while, collected some examples, looked at manuscripts to see how scribes, the medieval equivalent of printers, had treated the notionally obscene passages (printers were quite often key to modern obscenity and censorship processes). After a few weeks I rang the editor and said, `Well, look, I can do the piece, but the story is going to be that six hundred years ago things were just about where they are today. Major writers could get away with the odd four-letter words (though they tended to be five-letter in those more expansive days), but the writers would apologise, and the scribes sometime left the words out. The story is’,  I summed up, `things haven’t really changed at all.’ He politely thanked me and said he didn’t really want to print that. The connection, the sign of unchangingness, was too disruptive to be recorded. Was that perhaps censorship ? Or is the past just sometimes not foreign enough.

To project that story logically, sometimes it is the disturbing sameness of the past that is avoided by selecting a pleasingly foreign part of the past. King Arthur’s myth, for example, is part of this process. There is quite substantial interest in the myth of Arthur, and not only from people who like to dress up in flowing robes or knock each other about with softwood lances on Sunday afternoons. Quite a few people are quite interested in discussions about the medieval king Arthur and even more interested still, to my very sceptical regret, in conversations about the notional historical Arthur: did he really live, was he in fact part Roman as well as Welsh, and, the real issue, did he perhaps lead the British resistance to the invading Germanic tribe.


No, no and no seem decent responses to that. But my use of those responses doesn’t make the ideas go away: they are rooted in modern thinking about Arthur especially from journalists and others with passing knowledge and excitable dispositions. Why is this ? Why are people obsessed with the `real’ King Arthur ? There is a good range of answers to that question. Many of them are idealistic, grossly idealistic I would say. These talk about chivalry, nobility, a name ringing down the ages, the surviving spirit of man at his noblest etc etc etc. Some explanations are sharper than that, and talk about the fascination with Arthur as a tragic version of human aspiration, or, to be even less woolly, to see Arthur as a figure of grand authority, but an authority which is always under pressure and finally fails – so his myth exemplifies what different cultures value as systems of power and ways of validating that power, but also, crucially, the myth expresses a strong fear that those valued systems will fail, that the mighty may fall and the not-so-mighty with them. You can go into the details of the varying structures of the Arthurian myth through time and show how its ideological structures realise, rather than merely parallel, what Raymond Williams called `the structure of feeling’ in an age.

This is all valid, and it means you can reverse the process and read the changing versions of the Arthur myth as synopses of social ideologies across time and place, but it still does not help us with the obsessive insistence on a `historical’ Arthur leading the brave Britons against the invading Anglo-Saxons. Why would the English of all people favour such a myth as they did in the mid twentieth century, with many books, both fact and fiction, setting out this concept. The notional historical Arthur is  not English after all: he would be Walsh or in the real fantasies, part or even fully Roman.

What happened to King Alfred, that certainly historical and genuinely heroic king, brave, skilful and determined in war against the Scandinavian invaders, a literary, Christian leader determined to progress mass education, rightly the only English king to have been called `the Great’. Why was modern contact with Alfred broken ? In nineteenth-century England he was a big hero, with statues in towns and schools named after him. But modern students in Britain have hardly heard of him and whereas the French bathe in the glory of Charlemagne, alternating him with Napoleon, the English have no real mythic hero of their own, and they are also massively ignorant of the vey substantial tradition of literature and learning from Anglo-Saxon England, fine heroic poetry, searching Christina poetry, the solid virtues of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - not to mention the sturdy democratic practices that were seriously threatened by the arrival of the Norman – a topic of much discussion in earlier centuries, when the conquest was said to have imposed `The Norman Yoke’ on the necks of the freedom-loving English.  The British interest in the past is still very strong – indeed compared to America and Australia, British literary education seems a heritage park where students actually seem to prefer the medieval writers to more solid, and stolid, successors like Milton and Wordsworth. But there is no interest now in Alfred.

What happened to him and his whole Anglo-Saxon connection ? Simple dates can be very instructive. There is no significant `historical Arthur’ industry in the nineteenth century, including the entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. The topic is first raised in 1935 in a couple of pages in R. G. Collingwood’s part of the influential Oxford volume on Roman Britain and the Anglo-Saxon Settlement. There this major, very respected historian cannot it seem resist fantasising about a `real’ Arthur, part British part Roman,  who even, he suggests, might have led mounted warriors (like the knights). It is historical nonsense, and has been excised from the volume recently, but it started the whole thing off.

What was the point ? Through all the novels and lightweight non-fiction books that followed, one theme is the same: the Anglo-Saxons were Germanic in a beastly way. Where Victorian Britain was happy to have a German prince marry their queen, when major intellectuals like Coleridge, Carlyle, George Eliot were steeped in the culture of Goethe and Hegel, the first world war and especially the second (around 1950 is the apogee of the real Arthur industry). But that Germanicity suddenly become an embarrassing connection, something that needed to be a contrast not a continuity, and so the English were suddenly very happy to feel that they have some admixture of Celtic blood.

You get improbable ideas like because Arthur held up the Saxons for at least a generation, when they did then settle they were not as aggressive, they intermarried with Celtic women or, a variant mollification, they came with their families. Commentators also have an undertow of interest in Arthur somehow transmitting Roman imperialness to Britain – these male scholars, you must remember, had studied at school almost nothing except Latin and Greek and those skills were somehow (or more usually, anyhow) involved with the elite management of an empire.

My own 1983 book on Arthur is, very strangely,  the only source for this explanation of the weird presence of Arthur at the core of Enlgish national ideology. That goes in some detail into the arguments, including possible positives: there are two early reference to Arthur fighting the Anglo-Saxons. They come from the ninth century, but a four hundred year lag does not mean they might not bear some truth. More revealingly they are both in Latin histories, the Annales Cambriae (`Annals of Wales’) and the Historia Brittonum (`History of the Britons’) – that is they are by Benedictine monks, men whose whole world-view is inherently a national/historical/military one. The only contemporary history, by Gildas, also in Latin, writes about the wars against the Saxons, but has no Arthur among several named leaders. And the wealth of early Welsh poetry and, a bit later, prose, while it has many references to Arthur, never has any idea that he had any encounters with the Saxons, just see him as your typical Welsh warlord, leading a band of mighty warriors who interact with semi-gods, wonderful animals, and ferocious villains. Arthur the defender of Britain is a twentieth century character, the present populating the past, a contrast who displaces a disturbing continuity.


If an ideological structure can in that way be created to construct a fictional past that is entirely consoling to the present, such formations can in other cases actively work to obscure aspects of the past that seem in some way disconcerting. An example I would like to give is from the tradition of Robin Hood. In important ways he is the reflex of Arthur: Robin Hood is insistently associated with resistance to authority and is a very well-known figure even though, again the reverse of Arthur, there are no monuments in high-canon literature, theatre, opera or art in honour of the outlaw hero. His tradition lives in the forest undergrowth of culture, in folk-lore, pantomime, song and in the modern period very much in the visual media, film and television, not to mention the ultimate ephemerality of newspaper headlines -- `Robin Hood Tax’ comes up all the time.

What bothers me here is that the actual structures of the Robin Hood myth over time are not only not well-known to the public, including the public with a tertiary education in literature and culture, but that there are forces – I am inclined to say strange forces – that appear to operate against such a full dissemination of the facts in the case of Robin Hood.

My first point is the sheer difficulty of knowing what went on in the outlaw tradition. The Arthur materials are easy enough to trace in Everyman, Penguin and other widely mediated sources. There are also stacks of encyclopaedias and general surveys of the tradition, some of them like Richard Barber’s multi-edition study, with excellent illustrations. Robin Hood is different. If you have access to a very good library and know your way round the subject very well, you can assemble a pretty complete repertoire of the Robin Hood materials, the tradition in all its variety. There will be some fifty ballads (some of them overlapping with each other) from between 1450 to the mid nineteenth century; there will be some prose texts, both short Lives and lengthy Victorian novels; some literary poems giving a male-gendered, though also aestheticised air to the outlaw, from the Romantics to the Georgians; there are also a lot of twentieth-century children’s stories. Then there are many play versions—indeed performance and theatre may well be the default genre in the Robin Hood tradition: plays exist from the fifteenth century on and there were many musical versions from eighteenth century operates to full-blown Victorian pantomimes. And of course there are the films and the television series, which keep on coming. It’s a sizeable archive, though not like the masses of the Arthur material, which is difficult even to describe, let alone read. But there is also a major difference in availability. People do not know, and seem not to want to know, the Robin Hood archive, where Arthurian antiquities seem to have positive value through their antiquity. I have found this to my pain.

In the 1980s when I was working on the Robin Hood material and was also having quite a lot to do with media and publishing – for a start my wife was a journalist/publisher – I planned to assemble what I thought of as a Robin Hood Reader, a basic collection of the most interesting texts, a few of them, like the Victorian novels, to be in excerpted form. It would be like a Norton anthology but I thought of it in the mainstream cultural market like  Penguin Classics or Everyman’s Library. I offered it to those famous firms – and pointed out, I thought persuasively, that there were to be two Robin Hood films in 1991, starring Kevin Costner and Patrick Bergin – and the plan for a Mel Gibson vehicle had been abandoned (it resurfaced as Braveheart).

I couldn’t raise a whisper of interest in this project. Very popular hero, unique project, lots of publicity always and especially soon: nobody cared. I don’t think this was because of my own notional limitations as editor. There is something structural here. This was a part of a past foreign country no-one wanted to visit. The publishers said it wouldn’t fit into their series, neither Penguin or Everyman. In part that view is nonsense – the difference of the material is the point of the project. But also it is revealing: the material was truly different, non-canonical, popular, textually volatile – in a word, alive.

The material was strange generically, and as the linguists tell us, genres are a structure of social discourse, they indicate the social and political levels at which the material operates. The disdainful publishers also said that the reader wouldn’t relate to any university courses: no indeed, it was the intelligent general public I had in mind, though I did also think you might get courses through this material being widely available. But I also knew, from having taught some of it, that this would be tricky for students and staff. Because the material was non-canonical and in popular genres you couldn’t spend ages using the usual lit crit routines, studying them for images, ironies, onomatopoeia or whatever; equally there was not a novel-like steady procedure via the controlling mind of the author into the receptive mind of the reader, to transmit all sorts of wisdom and alleged learning—and that absence was especially conspicuous in the melodramatic and banal Victorian novels.

I wasn’t sure how much of the negative response was because the early Robin Hood, the one who would get star billing in any archive because he remained so popular o the present, was fairly strongly anti-authoritarian, especially in the early materials. Where in the 1938 film starring Errol Flynn Basil Rathbone just fails to get the girl and then looks outraged down his long nose as the outlaws escape, in the early ballads the sheriff gets beheaded. That original Robin was a true social bandit and even when the Tudor period, that time of centralisation and normalisation, turned him into a distressed earl just waiting for the king to come and restore him, even he retained populist sympathies and at least would speak up for the common man. The idea that Lord Robin becomes an outlaw because he saves a peasant poacher from ferocious Norman foresters is a twentieth century conventional film opening (stemming I believe from Henry Gilbert’s 1912 novel). But I don’t think the resistance to my Robin Hood Reader was really based on a distaste for a leftist core to the narrative: it was rather a structural pattern finding the material is too elusive, too unstructured, for the literary and cultural discursive system to handle it.

Subsequent events seem to me to prove this. With my rejection slips in hand, I noted that a US outfit was looking for medieval course readers, and the outcome was an edition that appeared in 1996 from the Teaching of Medieval Studies outfit at Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo – in spite of its location a rather serious place in fact because this is where world and especially US medievalists meet for a huge conference – some five thousand of them will be there. I co-edited this with Tom Ohlgren, who had also proposed something along these lines. But it wasn’t my general Reader. Entitled `Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales’ the edition constrains, and strains, the ballads towards the practice of the American classroom. It’s a massive book, over 700 pages, with wide spacing and margins. It is a  bit like a Norton critical reader but only medieval and renaissance: here the Robin Hood tradition is firmly in the past and the museum effect includes other outlaws for comparison, with excepts from the lives of the likes of Hereward the Wake, Fulk Fitz Warren and Eustace of Boulogne. They fill the space I was going to give to modernity in the myth.

The edition has indeed stimulated courses – there are about fifty in the States; in Britain just the one at, guess where, Cardiff. Some of the livelier minded Americans like Kevin Harty at Lasalle, Philadelphia, and Tom Hahn at Rochester, New York, add on modern material, especially film, and do present the outlaw myth as a discursive challenge to cultural conventionality, but for the most part the Robin Hood Reader concept edition has been sucked back into the long tradition of  learning for its own sake, tourism into the past. You get exceptions – Tom Hahn’s excellent essay on how the post 1945 English historians rediscovered Robin Hood as part of their radicalism, or Rob Gossedge’s piece on Thomas Love Peacock’s folding of the Windsor enclosure resistance into his novel Maid Marian. But these are all the more notable for being rare. Here the past has swamped both the past and the present: a foreign set of operations, scholarly analysis, has circumvented the potential of the Robin Hood country for a lasting critique of authority and indeed modernity. The living difference of the past material has been ironed out into a model of present-ratifying bodies of cultural material. Contrast has been constrained into continuity.

It’s not all bad news. There is now a modest-sized lively body of scholars, not all in universities, who meet every two years for a Robin Hood conference: quite a few of the papers do dig into ways in which the tradition has connected with its contexts, if only rarely going on to interrogate the present as a result. Some of them appear in the essay-collections that come out every now and then – but they are basically filled with narrow-range pieces of scholarship offering very little scope of sociocultural critique. In the same way I find that only my two books have offered any consciously political reading of the tradition. There are two other recent books on Robin Hood: Jeffrey Singman produced a medieval/renaissance survey but it is entirely scholarly and entirely old world. My co-editor Tom Ohlgren has now produced a very detailed book on the manuscripts of the early texts and their contexts: interesting stuff but not getting past 1500. In neither book do we ever come back from that past country and so understand the contrast and continuities that the Robin Hood tradition is steeped in, but which seem to remain largely silent as if he is only  a past entertainment. After all the journalists just want to know if he really exhausted as if was King Arthur, and apart from me and my friends at Cardiff, almost everybody in Britain interested in Robin Hood is a historian longing to find his body stretched out in Sherwood. At Nottingham U they somehow make an MA course out of this distinctly limited antediluvian tourism..


So in the case of Robin Hood the actual activities of the past can seem too foreign to be thought to be of as having any real interest in the present. But if we are energetic this is not necessarily always the case. We can take advantage of those challenges and let our past speak disruptively, and informatively, in the present, when we find, as we will again and again, probing aspects of past structures that will expose our modern patterns.

For example, when in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, the Man in Black laments the loss of his fair White (figuring John of Gaunt’s loss of his dear dead duchess Blanche), the narrator, after hearing a powerful description of her, says `Yow thoghte that she was the beste/And to beholde the alderfayreste/Whoso had loked hir with your eyen.’(1049-51) -- `It seemed to you she was the best and of all the fairest to look at, whoever looked at her with your eyes’. The Man in Black is outraged at this insult. `With myn ? Nay, alle that hir seyen/ Seyde and sworen hyt was soo.’ (1052-3) -- `With mine ! No, everyone who saw her said and swore that it was so.’ A private judgement, in that collectivised culture, is an aberrant one; true honour rests in what is generally accepted. My friend’s Aboriginal schoolkids would have understood. The structure is the precise reverse of our construction of grief in deep personal feeling and memory. The US television journalists say to the massacre survivors, `What did you feel when you heard the shots going off ?’

In the same way our own attitudes are exposed as narrowly individualised when, in Malory, Sir Launcelot discusses with his affinity his plans now that Queen Guinevere has been arrested for adultery with him. In a grand scene at night by torchlight, Sir Launcelot, his kin, his friend, his allies, and the allies of his friends, they all meet and plan their action – a magnate and his party forming policy, shaping crucial action in a very fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses way. And they are all quite clear why he should rescue her. It is a matter of his honour, or his `worship’ as they put it. The word love is never used.

Not because Launcelot and Guinevere do not love each other. Their previous parting has been both noble and tender; they have suffered and yearned for each other for years, and for hundreds of pages. But causes, reasons, the springs of behaviour are public rather than private in this different world, and we who can hardly speak of honour without a sneer, who can barely conceive of civic morality without looking for the cash flow, who understand the public sphere just in terms of celebrity gossip, we expose in those responses our own minimalised privacy of judgement, or existence. The past can interrogate the present, asking when did that change occur, why did it occur, are we better for it, or should we be, unlike Sir Launcelot, ashamed.

We can go on, finding continuities and contrasts. Contacts can be equally disturbing. There is not a lot to choose between the treatment and presentation of women in a medieval text and their presentation in most modern culture. Arthur, Launcelot, even Gawain, have agonies of conscience (the public invading the private) in Malory’s text, but we are merely told at some distance about Guinevere’s move into a nunnery -- but as in modern media times we know what she was wearing and how upset she was. In the same mode of disconcerting continuity, the complexities of narration, of viewpoint of authority within a text, they seem much the same now in modern and especially in postmodern culture as they were in the fourteenth century, though the period of the classic novel intervenes like a high noon of narrative certitude for the single authorial voice -- or perhaps it was just a period of puffed-up  bourgeois self-positioning.

But the contrast between the past and the present remain the sharpest points of probing and enlightening analysis, the part of the holiday in that notionally foreign place that is really disconcerting. Some are matters of content, some are matters of form; some of the most intriguing are both at once. Take for a final example one of the last: and a final retort to the foreign country metaphor. Take the absorbing fact that medieval writing tends to use no metaphor at all. For Chaucer, metaphor only really emerges in his poetry when he is translating from Dante; for the medieval Latin-writing rhetoricians, metaphors were the very height of complex style, ready-cut stones borrowed from the ruined walls of Roman poetry. Simile though is quite normal: Chaucer’s best thrusts are in simile. Alison in `The Miller’s Tale’ was `gent and smal’, graceful and slender’, like  a weasel, the little devil. The Miller’s beard, beast that he was, was red `as any sowe or fox’. The simile structurally states a commonplace, it is a superpersonal piece of judgement, constructing a generalised wisdom – and so Chaucer the naive narrator is not responsible for the subtly waspish effect (and he would have liked the wasp simile) it is some effect of the reader’s intelligence elucidating the author’s buried thrust. By contrast metaphor is a treasured individually imaginative device creating the hero author. Metaphor privileges and even creates the present and conscious artifice of the speaking voice. – Shakespeare takes a bow in almost every one of his lines. Renaissance self-fashioning, to use a key phrase from Stephen Greenblatt, is itself fashioned in the favourite figures of speech that the poets use.


We remain metaphorists. `The past is a foreign country’ has all the self-assertion and the fabricated banality of the metaphor. The statement dramatises the intelligence of the speaker, but it has a distinctly dodgy rationale; it is a good way of making the past your own personal visited property, fenced and acculturated to your own interests.  Hartley and Lowenthal can go no further in positive terms than to say that somehow the past is all there as a possible resource for the private individual. In that account the illusory outcome was the result of a metaphor, a forced comparison between history and terrain. The past has like so much public land in the early modern period undergone enclosure and been made into a possessed landscape. It might, like an estate we visited in Exton, Rutland, still have the little humps that were once the villagers' houses; it might, like a London square be a fictitious recreation of rurality accessible only to the house-owners in the square who have a key to unlock both the gate and their fantasies of landed property.

But in reality the past is neither so passive as to be just a place, nor so distant as to be foreign. It is literal, not metaphorical. It is part of our own construction, part of our own possibilities of self-reflexive analysis. The past, like the present, like the future indeed, is a challenge to us to know more and interpret it better. But as we are now metaphorists, self-privileging to the death, or to the big sleep, to passing, to crossing the rubicon, to many more metaphorical life-transitions, let me offer finally a different metaphor that will not be misleading but actually helpful about how to inhabit and utilise the past. The past is a big wonderful challenging and illuminating library to which we have access. Let us read the past carefully, thoughtfully, inquiringly; let us learn some of its lessons and speak and think its meanings in our continuing discourse of present history.


Geoffrey Chaucer, `The Book of the Duchess’, in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. L. D. Benson, Oxford University Press, New York, 1988

John Frow,  `Tourism and the Semiotics of Nostalgia’,  in Time and Commodity Culture: Essays in Cultural Theory and Postmodernity, Clarendon, Oxford, 1997, 64-101

Henry Gilbert, Robin Hood and His Merry Men, Jack, Edinburgh, 1912

Rob Gossedge,  `Thomas Love Peacock, Robin Hood, and the Enclosure of Windsor Forest’, in Stephen Knight, ed., Robin Hood in Greenwood Stood: Alterity and Context in the English Outlaw Tradition, Brepols, Turnhout, 2012, pp. 135-64.

Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, University of Chicago Press, 1980

Thomas Hahn, `Robin Hood and the Rise of Cultural Studies’, in Ruth Evans, Helen Fulton and David Matthews, eds., Medieval Cultural Studies,  University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2006,  pp. 39-54

L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1953

Stephen Knight, Arthurian Literature and Society, Macmillan, London, 1983

Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw, Blackwell, Oxford, 1994

Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2003

David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country, Cambridge University Press, 1985

Dean McCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, Macmillan, London, 1976, p.81; new edition with Epilogue, University of California Press, Berkeley 1999

Jeffrey Singman,  Robin Hood, The Shaping of a Legend, Greenwood, Westport, 1998

Robert Weimann, `Past Significance and Present Meaning in Literary History’, in Structure and Society in Literary History, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1977, pp. 18-56

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